A federal judge in Arkansas has set sentencing Jan. 13 for Walter White Jr., an Agriculture Department soil conservationist found guilty of conspiring to burn his house after he won a celebrated racial-discrimination case against the government.
White, a 22-year employe of the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), could receive as many as 55 years in prison as a result of his U.S. District Court conviction last month on 10 counts involving arson and mail fraud to collect insurance.
White also could be ordered to make restitution to the Farmers Insurance Group, which had paid him about $91,000 of a $158,000 SCS officials want White to be dismissed.
claim before his indictment in the fall by a federal grand jury at Little Rock.
White's Forrest City house burned last year after he won promotion to GS12 rank and a $30,000 award in a discrimination case that led to a statewide investigation of civil rights enforcement in USDA's major agencies in Arkansas. Probers found widespread irregularities and recommended changes.
White was indicted after a lengthy inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which entered the case following White's assertion that he had found a partially burned cross behind his house.
Although local fire officials said they found no evidence of a cross at the scene, the FBI became involved because of the possibility that White's civil rights had been violated.
At the time White said he thought that the burning of his house was linked to his racial-discrimination case against the SCS.
SCS officials at Little Rock said this week that the agency is proposing White's removal from federal employment as "the appropriate administrative disciplinary action, based on his conduct." White has not responded to the proposed dismissal, officials said.
According to Michael Johnson, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted White, key evidence in the case involved tape recordings of conversations between White and John Adams, convicted earlier as a coconspirator in the fire. The tapes disclosed that White agreed to pay Adams $1,000 and told him to deny having a role in the case.
The prosecution charged that the payment was for setting the fire, but White testified that the money was for hospital treatment for Adams. White also denied that he had made some of the statements on the tapes, then reversed himself in court.
White, 44, testified that he did not think that Adams had burned the house, although he had pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and testified against White in the trial. White said he thought that Adams had been "used" by the Ku Klux Klan.
"Walter White has done more to put himself in prison than anyone I've prosecuted," said Johnson, a veteran civil rights attorney with the Justice Department. "We considered this prosecution very important, and we hope the message gets through."